Sunday, March 6, 2016

La Favorite

It had been several years since I had last attended the Washington Concert Opera, a group that performs operatic rarities in concert format (the singers stand in front of the orchestra with their parts on music stands, with the chorus behind the orchestra) at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. In the past, I've seen wonderful performances by this group, including the great Bellini opera, Norma, which has since been fully staged by the Washington National Opera.

This performance featured Donizetti's La Favorite, which I had not previously heard in any form. It is traditional opera, not comedy, and was written for the Paris Opera after Donizetti had left Naples. He had been writing an opera on a similar theme there but grew disgusted with the censorship he was encountering. The controversy likely related to the title character, who is the mistress of the King of Spain. The king's maintaining this relationship results in the opera in the Pope's threatening to excommunicate the king.

The opera became popular in Paris and has been performed there more than 600 times at the Opera. But it has languished somewhat in the 20th and 21st centuries, possibly because the soprano's role is really meant for a mezzo, and except for Carmen, most operas don't feature leading roles for mezzos. This situation resulted from the "relationship" between the intendant of the Paris Opera and a leading soprano, whose voice was more in the mezzo range, and who did not, not surprisingly, want to sing trills or coloratura at all.

Thus the opera has no significant coloratura or trills, unlike Donizetti's most famous pieces, Lucia di Lammermoor and L'Elisir d'Amore.  Donizetti was the last of the great bel canto composers, who emphasized this kind of :beautiful singing" and he turned out something like 60 or 70 operas -- the exact number is unclear because, Broadway-style, he cannibalized some scores to create others.

The opera had some very enjoyable arias for mezzo, tenor, and bass. The bass was John Relyea, who is known and a superb singer, with a lovely deep tone. The soprano was Kate Lindsey, an up-and-coming soprano, who did full justice to her role. The tenor was younger, Roderick Bills, and improved markedly as he warmed up.

The opera begins and ends in the monastery that the tenor is first joining, but then leaves when he is entranced by seeing a beautiful "angel", i.e., woman, in church. He is invited by her to her palace but she does not disclose that she is the mistress to the king. The young man is somewhat clueless since he is spirited off the island where this palace stands upon word that the king is arriving.

The father superior of the monastery turns up at the court to threaten the king with excommunication per a papal bull if the king does not give up his adulterous relationship. The libretto also threatens that the nation's churches would be closed under an interdict. Kings were not about to resist these thunderbolts from the Bishop of Rome, so the king is delighted when the young man, who has received a military commission by intervention of the mistress, wins a major battle and saves the king's throne.

The king now offers the mistress--sans identifying her as such--to the young man, now the triumphant general. All seems fine, as the young man is also given a title as a marquis. But in the hour before the rapidly-scheduled wedding, the chorus of courtiers (a la Rigoletto's "vile race of courtiers") taunts the young man with his prospective loss of honor should he proceed with this marriage.

He decides his honor is more vital than his love, so he takes off to rejoin the monastery, she follows him, and the tragic ending follows.

Ridiculous operatic plot but some delightful music and fine singing. After Eve Queler revived the opera some years ago in New York, the Met picked it up and cast Shirley Verrett, Sherrill Milnes, and Alfredo Kraus in its production, which sounds formidable. My conclusion was that hearing it in concert version was amazingly appropriate; little would have been added by full staging.

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